Fall during 14-year-old scout's 'unprecedented' rescue operation 'unlikely to have led to her death'
A Coastguard crew winching two scouts from the sea simultaneously when one fell had never performed the operation before, an inquest heard.
Aoife Winterlich (14) from Walkinstown, Dublin 12 was on a weekend scout trip that turned to tragedy on Sunday December 6 2015.
She and fellow scout Philip Byrne were swept out to sea from rocks at Hook Head Lighthouse shortly after 2pm. Aoife became unconscious in the water almost immediately, Dublin Coroner’s Court heard.
The Waterford Coastguard helicopter arrived at the scene at 2.15pm, ten minutes after an emergency call was placed. The crew winched both casualties to safety but Aoife, who remained unconscious, slipped from her harness and fell 40 feet into the sea below.
Pathologist Pathologist Prof Maureen O’Sullivan said there was no evidence of trauma from the fall that contributed to the teenager’s death.
"It is unlikely the fall contributed to her demise. The damage was done in her initial immersion," Prof O’Sullivan said.
There was no significant injuries to the body besides bruises and scrapes possibly sustained as she lost her footing on the rocks and was swept out. The cause of death was brain damage due to a near drowning, according to the pathologist.
Aoife was retrieved from the sea and winched back to the helicopter within one minute and 15 seconds. She was transferred to Waterford General Hospital and later to Crumlin Children’s Hospital where she was pronounced dead five days later on December 11.
The group of 14 scouts aged between 14 and 17 arrived at Hook Head lighthouse, took a tour and were given 20 minutes ‘free time’ to eat their lunch before.
Scouting Ireland CEO John Lawlor described the trip as a ‘low risk activity’ because it was not intended for the scouts to go outside the walled lighthouse compound. Scout leaders Stuart Garland and Leanne Bradley said the group was told to stay within the walls.
In his evidence Philip Byrne said he didn’t recall being told by the leaders not to go down to the rocks. He and Aoife saw others going over the wall and they followed.
"We’d seen the boys there previously and it looked cool so we went down. I knew there were rocks and waves but it didn’t look dangerous. They were taking pictures and looking at the waves," he said. A series of waves knocked them off their feet and Aoife was swept out, the court heard.
"It knocked me and Aoife off our feet. We fell but we didn’t think anything was serious. Then another wave came and she got pulled out," he said.
"She was submerged in the water and then managed to get to a rock. She was sort of semi-conscious, rubbing her head. Another wave came and she was submerged again. I got hold of her. I swam out further because I was afraid of us getting smashed on the rocks," he said.
Philip was holding her head above water when the Coastguard helicopter arrived overhead. The crew assessed the scene and a decision was made to retrieve both casualties from the water together.
Winch operator Neville Murphy said he had never been in this situation before.
"This is unprecedented. Two people in the water, that generally doesn’t happen. We can only train to certain limits. We can never know what we are faced with as we look out the door of the aircraft," he said.
Winch man Sean Jennings descended to the pair in the water with two winch strops. Casualties are usually secured with two strops, one around the chest area and one for the legs. He was holding onto both casualties and just at the point of entry to the helicopter, Aoife slipped and fell. Asked by the coroner what happened, Mr Jennings said he did not know.
“We were going into a spin and I had to stop either casualty coming into contact with the aircraft. The mechanics of how she came out of the strop I don’t know,” he said.
There is no instruction or training for such a situation, the court heard. Rescue protocol does not distinguish between a conscious and unconscious casualty in the water, Mr Jennings said.
The inquest was adjourned until next month for further questions around Aoife’s care in hospital.